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(Yonhap Feature) TV dramas face fierce competition in 2018

2017/12/26 09:57

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By Shim Sun-ah and Yoon Go-eun

SEOUL, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- Will it be a "game of chicken" or a "win-win" for all? 2018 is expected to be a year of intense competition among television dramas.

Drama is no longer an exclusive property of the country's three major TV networks -- KBS, MBC and SBS. CJ E&M's flagship cable channel tvN jumped into the competition a few years ago, and it became a six-way race with the rise of new cable channels like JTBC and OCN in 2017.

But this is not the end. TvN and JTBC increased the portion of drama series in their programming in the second half of this year, with OCN expected to follow suit early next year. Cable channels Olive, Onstyle and Dramax, as well as general programming cable channels, such as TV Chosun, Channel A and MBN, also plan to launch their own drama series next year.

This file photo shows a scene from "Descendants of the Sun." (Yonhap) This file photo shows a scene from "Descendants of the Sun." (Yonhap)

In addition, the global streaming service Netflix is posed to join, unveiling its second original Korean TV series, "Kingdom."

   Written by Kim Eun-hee of the critically acclaimed TV show "Signal" (2016) and directed by Kim Seong-hun of the movie "Tunnel" (2016), the six-episode series is set in Korea's medieval Joseon period where a crown prince is sent on a suicide mission to investigate the mysterious outbreak of an epidemic, according to Netflix.

Market insiders forecast that an unusually large number of new drama series (110 to 130) will hit the air next year. Of them, 80 to 85 will be miniseries favored by young viewers.

Behind the expected rise is the jackpot hit by the South Korean military-romance drama "Descendants of the Sun" last year. The drama's huge popularity at home and in China brought growth both in quality and quantity of Korean dramas targeting overseas markets, whose area was previously limited to romantic comedies.

This file photo is a promotional image for "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God." (Yonhap) This file photo is a promotional image for "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God." (Yonhap)

However, China's tacit ban on imports of Korean pop culture in retaliation for Seoul's deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system soon abruptly threw cold water on those hopes, freezing the industry for over a year. But that didn't stop TV broadcasters from jumping into the "gold rush" toward the height reached by "Descendants."

   Those who benefit the most from the rush are actors and production staff members.

Largely driven by the abrupt increase of demand in the market, their pay levels have soared. So it has become increasingly difficult for production companies to cast as many well-recognized and talented actors and hire as many trained production staff, such as lighting and editing technicians, as they want for their shows.

"We're already suffering from a manpower shortage," a tvN official said on condition of anonymity. "When we lose contact with a staff member with whom we reached a verbal contract on the previous day, it's 100 percent guaranteed that he or she is filming another drama after being offered more money."

   Rumors have it that one A-lister demanded 150 million won (US$139,172) per episode.

"We don't know if the contract was actually inked or not, but it is no longer a surprise to hear that the appearance fee for some actors is already 100 million won per episode," a chief producer of a major TV network said. "Since there are so many dramas under production, top actors demand the highest possible pay rates they can receive and production companies have no other way but to accept their demands."

   Bae Yong-joon, the star of the hit 2002 drama series "Winter Sonata," was the first Korean actor to receive more than 100 million won per episode. He broke the record when he starred in MBC's "Taewangsasingi" (Story Of First King's Four Gods) in 2007. Several stars who are popular in China, such as Jang Keun-suk, Lee Young-ae and Ji Chang-wook, are reportedly at the same pay level now.

This file photo is a promotional poster for "Saimdang, Memoir of Colors." (Yonhap) This file photo is a promotional poster for "Saimdang, Memoir of Colors." (Yonhap)

So, the shortage of A-listers opened wide the opportunity for established supporting actors or new actors to prove themselves. Some rookies, such as Yang Se-jong and Chae Soo-bin, took advantage of the chance and rose to stardom.

However, many industry insiders are concerned that with the Chinese market remaining closed, the increased number of TV shows will lead to what is called a "game of chicken" where there are too many players seeking only their own advantage.

Park Ho-sik, a chief producer of tvN, forecast that after the peak in the cutthroat competition next year, some uncompetitive players might silently vanish from the industry.

"Production companies cannot stand such a huge production cost without any tremendous will of their executives for investment," he said. "The market seems to be stirring in the hope that the Chinese market will open again, but I'm not that positive about this chance."

   With so many dramas now under production, he pointed out that the domestic market is not big enough to consume all of them. "We cannot continue with the way things are now without finding a new alternative market."

   But there also is anticipation that the fierce competition will help increase the diversity of dramas.

"I hope the year 2018 will be a test for the diversity of Korean dramas," said Ham Young-hoon, a chief producer of JTBC. "I think the increase in the number of new shows will contribute to the development of Korean dramas if they are not alike."